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Plenty of poetry

National Poetry Month serves up some fine lines -- including some from actor James Franco

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As T.S. Eliot once wrote, "April is the cruellest month" -- thus a good time for National Poetry Month.

The online journal Lemon Hound ( has been publishing a poem each day. Unlike lesser poetry pushers, Lemon Hound disseminates a wide range of writing, rather than pretending (like your high school English teacher did) that poetry is one single, boring thing. A good place to start is with Robin Richardson's A Hedgehog in the Kitchen Keeps the Cockroaches at Bay.

When you've had your fill of Lemon Hound, visit UbuWeb ( Although UbuWeb isn't doing anything special for National Poetry Month, it remains the best repository of free experimental art online. The visual poetry and conceptual writing sections are especially impressive, and the /ubu Editions section offers free eBooks.


Living legend Bill Bissett recently won the 2014 Sheri-D Wilson Golden Beret Award for spoken-word poetry. The poet and painter, now 74, has authored at least one book (it's hard to keep count) for each year he's been alive.

A good place to start is with the recent republication of RUSH: what f--kan theory; a study uv language (BookThug, 130 pages, $20), co-edited and with an afterword by Derek Beaulieu and Gregory Betts. RUSH, a poem about poetics, is Bissett's best book and offers context for both his work and (as a seminal 1960s text) the concerns of the Canadian avant-garde.


Robert Fitterman's No, Wait. Yep. Definitely Still Hate Myself (Ugly Duckling, 80 pages, $16) is an instant classic of conceptual writing. Like Fitterman's masterful This Window Makes Me Feel (available as a free /ubu Edition), No, Wait... combines emotionally charged found text from online searches.

Although Fitterman pulls from disparate authors to compile his book-length poem, a single voice emerges through a litany of self-loathing that is often hilariously high-pitched: "My hobbies include: being sad and lonely / all the time and my interests / Consist of people I can't have."

Fitterman's true subject is not loneliness and self-loathing, but the way poetry mediates personal expression. You know you've hit rock-bottom when you start writing poetry such as: "I feel so lonely, / Like I need somebody. I even wrote a poem about these feelings / today -- f--k, I just need to turn everything around."

Critics of conceptual writing often complain that it lacks true feeling, but Fitterman proves that experimental poetry can be more engaged with honest emotion than more conventional poems, even while pointing out that there's no such thing as "honest emotion."


"Even in the afterlife, it's school," writes Jen Currin in School (Coach House, 104 pages, $18) -- such are the surrealistic nightmares on offer in Currin's latest collection, which draws its strength (as do dreams) from startling juxtapositions. "We committed to this TV show // starring flies, dead bees & the future" -- funny, shocking, and melancholic, Currin's lines hover between terror and wry shrugs.

"Two children took the black clock outside, // smashed it to pieces with a rock" -- one poem begins with this dark, dread-filled image, then shifts towards the grinning "The anarchist bookstore is open every day from 12-8. Sometimes." It ends with the tense ambiguity of "I remember opening a window, but not which one."

Currin's poems are like puzzles you can't solve, except that their missing pieces thrill rather than frustrate. Clever, conversational, and complex, Currin's School is required reading.


I know, I know -- everyone wants to hear about James Franco's first book of poetry. Directing Herbert White (Anansi, 88 pages, $20) combines exceptional moments with bizarre missteps. Its title refers to Franco's 2010 short film Herbert White, based on a Frank Bidart poem about a necrophiliac child-killer.

This title poem, in which Franco apes Bidart's style, is a low point. Franco fumbles whenever he appears to take the role of "poet" seriously. The worst line in the book -- "Watch and judge, you are the jury" -- is so inept that it's almost amazing. It seems like a joke, like Franco pretending to be the terrible poet everyone expects.

But he isn't. Franco's best poems are about him writing poems, or about performance, rather than when he pretends not to perform: "There is a fake version of me / And he's the one that writes / These poems." When Franco seems more earnest (though maybe he's still faking it) -- in his elegy for River Phoenix, for example -- he's less adept.

That poem, nevertheless, has an interesting conceit -- the speaker is River, berating James Franco for not being River Phoenix -- and a masterful ending image: "you're like a king / That orders one thing, / And then orders the opposite thing."

Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball (@jonathanballcom) lives online at, where he writes about writing the wrong way.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 26, 2014 G5


Updated on Saturday, April 26, 2014 at 8:19 AM CDT: Tweaks formatting.

8:30 AM: Adds video.

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